In 7th State of the City, mayor focuses on threat of ‘climate crisis’

Updated: May. 31, 2019 at 12:15 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu’s homeless crisis and its beleaguered rail project took something of a backseat Thursday at the mayor’s seventh State of the City address, which instead pivoted toward a looming but not yet present crisis: Climate change.

Characterizing the speech as a “special State of the City address,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell opened the evening talking about the threat of global warming to Oahu’s residents and economy, and much of his address focused on what should be done to prepare Honolulu for rising sea levels, flooding rains and a more active hurricane season as the Earth warms.

“For years, we have called it climate change, but it’s much more serious. We are now facing a climate crisis,” Caldwell said.

“But where there is challenge there is also opportunity. Every change we make to address the climate crisis can also build a stronger local economy, reduce long-term costs for residents, and ensure that our communities are resilient.”

Caldwell said one of his top priorities is placing a moratorium on the construction of new sea walls in vulnerable areas.

“I know it will be controversial, but we need to work with water, rather than against it,” he said.

Caldwell also said he will be working with the city’s Climate Change Commission to determine how far from the shoreline buildings should be allowed. The current shoreline setback requirements in Honolulu is 40 feet.

'We’ve lost about 25% of our beaches around the island. We need to become more flexible. Maybe some places will go back to 100 feet, others 60 feet, maybe it’ll stay at 40," he said.

Caldwell’s new so-called “Resilience Strategy" got good reviews from one of Hawaii’s top ocean scientists.

“I have to say that his initiative to have a moratorium on sea wall construction and to develop a innovative setback system for the island, is probably the strongest coastal conservation step in the nation that I know of," said University of Hawaii professor Chip Fletcher.

In a nod to the theme of his address, Caldwell changed up the venue for this year’s speech, moving it from Downtown Honolulu to the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Hookupu Center on the water at Kewalo Basin.

But despite the center’s proximity to homeless encampments in Kakaako, Caldwell only said the word “homeless” once over the course of his prepared speech.

And he offered few new proposals aimed at tackling the problem.

He did, however, pitch several proposals designed to bolster the affordable housing inventory and address the island’s high cost of living.

Among the most significant: Caldwell said he would work with the City Council to establish a “vacancy fee” for Oahu residences that remain empty for much of the year.

The fee could be used to build affordable housing and, according to state figures, might apply to as much as 1 in 10 residential units or homes in the urban core.

A similar fee in Vancouver generated millions of dollars and pushed homeowners to list their vacant units as rentals.

The mayor also announced Thursday that he will raise the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour effective July 1. Ten percent of the city's 10,000 employees make the minimum wage, which currently sits at $10.10 an hour.

“We all know that Hawaii has a high cost of living. However, if we allow it to become out of reach for many people, our community will fall apart,” Caldwell said, according to prepared remarks.

He added he’s disappointed that the state Legislature opted not to approve a $15 minimum wage in the last session.

The mayor’s State of the City comes as Oahu grapples with a worsening unsheltered homeless crisis, a rail project with a rising price tag, and an exodus of residents to cheaper mainland locales.

According to a count conducted in January, Oahu’s unsheltered homeless population rose 12 percent from a year ago. Volunteers counted more than 2,400 people living on the streets, while about 1,900 were living in shelters.

Meanwhile, new Census estimates show that from 2010 to last year, nearly 62,000 more people moved to the mainland from Oahu than moved in. The exodus meant the population of Urban Honolulu shrank for a fourth straight year in 2018.

Given the scope of issues facing the city, it might be considered a major political gamble for the mayor to focus on climate change in his annual address instead of more traditional pocketbook issues.

In a statement, City Councilwoman Kymberly Marcos Pine said that it was “disappointing” that the mayor didn’t talk about the rail project in his address.

“The people need to know that we are moving forward with greater transparency and better leadership,” she said.

But others might also see the address as forward-looking.

And the mayor took pains in the speech to note that working to address climate change and its impacts would not only head off bigger issues in the future, but could be a catalyst for pushing the city to tackle a host of concerns.

He also pointed out that the first pillar of city’s new “Resilience Strategy” is reducing the cost of living.

Among the other climate change-related proposals Caldwell outlined in his speech:

  • The mayor pledged to push forward efforts to prepare government buildings for climate change, including by elevating Downtown rail stations.
  • Caldwell also said he’d work with public and private partners to plant 100,000 new trees on Oahu in the next five years.
  • And he said his administration would move city facilities to air conditioning that uses cool seawater rather than fossil fuels.
  • Finally, Caldwell said the city would Install energy-efficient LED lights in city facilities around the island after successfully converting most street lights to LED.

“Our policies need to be bold. If we want to save the things we love most about our local community, ironically, we have to change,” Caldwell said, according to his prepared remarks.

“Some of these changes will be hard. We will have failures. But ultimately, we will remain resilient and these challenges will bring us closer together.”

After his speech, Caldwell addressed the protesters who had been standing behind him at the speech and promised to plant more native trees than had been cut down at a controversial park site in Waimanalo.

“I thought I was going to be a bit more defensive because of what’s going on. But I think knowledge is key," said Waimanalo resident Charlotte Iida. “There is no master plan [phase] two and that he plans to with [area councilman] Ikaika [Anderson] to give us native forestry plants instead of what was just leveled.”

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